Elizabeth Gabay MW
Dec 2012

Jewish Food in Provence

Published in 'Jewish Renaissance' April 2010 With two regions within south east France, the Comtat Venaisson and the County of Nice, having an unbroken Jewish tradition until recent times, it would be surprising if no Provençal Jewish dishes existed. With no known Provencal Jewish cookbook it is difficult to neither identify distinct Jewish traditions, nor have any dishes come down to modern Provençal cuisine as being in the Jewish style. However, with some detective work, linking food with known Jewish traditions in Italy and Spain and which can also be found in Provence, an idea of the Jewish culinary heritage, before the arrival of the north African Jews in the 1960’s, can be deduced. Provencal Jewry was not an homogenous community. North western Italy was part of the Kingdom of Savoy which included Sardinia and the eastern half of what is now the French department of the Alpes-Maritimes. The rest of Provence had strong connections with Catalonia in Spain through the marriages of the ruling family while the Jews along the Rhone had connections with the Kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. The network of Jewish merchants throughout the Mediterranean region also facilitated the introduction of different ingredients into their cuisine which also shows strong similarities to the Moorish traditions of Spain. Olive oil, saffron, lemons, cumin, turmeric and ginger were all part of Jewish trade and their dishes. Provençal Christians, as in much of the rest of Europe used meat, and in particular pork, fat to cook. Olive oil was a luxury reserved for Christmas cakes and special meals and was a valuable trading commodity. In Marseille and Nice, Jews were known to be active in the olive oil trade. The ‘Soffrito’ (Italian) or ‘Sofregit’ (Catalan) method of cooking, usually with oil, onion, garlic and saffron a common Sephardi method of cookery and braising meat, is still used in Provence – even if the term is not used. In Spain and Italy saffron flavoured rice was a Shabbat speciality and saffron appears in many Provençal dishes although rice was not grown in Provence until modern times and had to be imported from Italy or Spain. After the expulsion of the Jews from Provence 1394-1498, many fled east to the relative safety of the Kingdom of Savoy. One Jewish speciality found from Spain, Sicily and Venice under various names, is a sweet or savoury dish made with spinach. In Nice it is always made with ‘blette’ (swiss chard) where it is caled ‘Tourte aux Blettes’. Blette has a long tradition within the Arab and Sicilian cuisine and may have come to Provence in the 16th century when the Jews fled Sicily. Mixing it with raisins and pine nuts was also typical of Moorish and Jewish Iberian cuisine. The sweet version is made with raisins, candied peel, pine nuts and dusted with sugar. The savoury tart can include capers, onions, anchovies and raisins and sometimes grated cheese. Both Niçois versions are in a pasty case. In southern France and Italy air-dried cod, also known as stockfish, (‘morue sèche’ in French) was imported from Norway had been popular since early medieval times. In Portugal and Spain salt cod (‘bacalao’) was popular. After 1492 the influx of Iberian Jews brought this taste for salt cod with them. ‘Morue salée’ is dried salted cod and ‘morue verte’ is salted but not dried cod. Salt cod mixed with milk and potato in ‘brandade’ appears to have originated over in the Languedoc but is a dish popular amongst Italian Jews and still found throughout Provence, while ‘Ragoût de Morue’- stewed with tomatoes, saffron, garlic and olive oil was, like many fish dishes with a tomato sauce also regarded as a Jewish style of cooking fish in Italy. The Judeo-Spanish dish ‘Ajada’ – a garlic mayonnaise served with fish, potatoes, eggs and vegetables is almost identical to the Provençal ‘Aïoli’. Jewish tradition either poaches or fries the fish and in Provence aïoli is often served with salt cod. ‘Farcis à la Niçoise’ - little vegetables, such as courgettes, tomatoes, peppers, onions and aubergines, stuffed with seasoned minced meat, has strong connections with Spanish Jewish/Moorish culinary traditions from where it spread out across north Africa and the northern Mediterranean. Aubergines had been introduced to Spain and southern Italy by the Arabs, but after 1492, the expelled Jews brought this ingredient with them to France and northern Italy. Beef ‘daubes’, cooked over a long slow heat and served with polenta or pasta may have been used as a Provençal form of ‘Hamin’ (Sabbath stew). The use of orange as a flavouring is another Iberian Moorish/Jewish tradition. ‘Tete de Veau’ (calves head) is said to be a popular Provencal dish for Rosh Hashannah. Provencal desserts are simple – fresh fruits, stewed fruits, dried fruits, nuts, nut pastries, candied chestnuts (‘marrons glacés), candied fruits, quince paste, marzipan, Calisson d’Aix, and fritters sprinkled with sugar and seasoned with orange flower water. These desserts can be found in medieval, Arab and many Jewish cook books. Provencal Jews, as elsewhere in Europe were largely urban, with only small vineyards for their own communal use. In fact, until the 1950’s Provencal agriculture was mixed with vines, grain, olives, fruit orchards and grazing land. Changing economies and markets have led to the growth in land under vine. A number of north African Jewish winemakers bought vineyards when they came to France in the 1960’s and did what they knew best – making wine in a hot dry climate. Very few make kosher wine, but they have had a significant impact on the rejuvenation of what was then an agricultural backwater. Domaine Bunan in Bandol and Cotes de Provence are probably the most successful and make kosher wine.